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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Oceanography catches a new wave

A new partnership formed by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Liquid Robotics could yield a substantial advancement for scientists and people throughout the world through the creation of an unmanned sea craft with attached seismometers.

The device they will be using, which looks like a surfboard with solar panels mounted on it, could provide earlier detection and warnings for earthquakes and tsunamis.

“The Wave Glider is a little surfboard-sized device connected by an umbilical that provides motor power through the conversion of wave power,” said Jonathan Berger, lead geophysicist in the Scripps team at UC San Diego.

The Wave Glider floats on the surface of the water. Meanwhile, the seismometer it is attached to, via the umbilical, stays deep down in the ocean getting vital measurements for scientists.

“The plan is to use the device as a gateway between seismic data and land,” Berger said.

Along with the solar panels on the Wave Glider, which are there to provide energy to keep the flow of data going, is an acoustic modem that is used to receive information the seismometers collect. The modem is then able to send the data up to a satellite, which can then be received by scientists within minutes for analysis.

“It’s critical for detecting earthquakes; we need data to be transmitted without delay,” Berger said.

The Wave Glider allows for the placement of seismometers in places not feasible before, allowing data to be available to scientists within minutes. Due to these new possibilities, people could experience impactful differences in the timeliness of tsunami warnings.

“It’s important with tsunamis to be able to make a measurement of the wave as it passes overhead,” Berger said . “That’s why we’re adding pressure measurements, to be able to transmit data back to shore quickly.”

According to Berger, another positive for the technology is the fact that it is much more cost-effective than previous methods of data collection. He said that with older technology scientists would have to hire ships to go out to a buoy’s location and perform maintenance, which is something that is not necessary with the unmanned Wave Glider.

“Ships cost about $50,000 per day, which amounts to about $250,000 for an entire trip. The Wave Glider will make it more affordable, bringing costs down to somewhere around $50,000 [total],” Berger said.

John Orcutt, co-principal investigator in the Scripps team at UC San Diego, said that the device is great because it could mean even coverage of the Earth for seismologists.

“It is important that every part of the Earth be sampled. It is important for us to have even coverage,” Orcutt said.

He said that one of the current problems with collecting data is that it is difficult to get any data in parts with little landmass nearby. According to Orcutt, many islands are used today as stations; these stations in turn are where data collected from seismometers goes before it is available via the internet for scientists.

“This is an inexpensive way to get the data we want without land,” Orcutt said.

He said that another possible use for the Wave Glider is the ability to have it monitor for nuclear tests. Places that today may be inaccessible could potentially be monitored with the help of the Wave Glider.

Orcutt believes that the Wave Glider is a sustainable way — especially since it does not use any fuel — to get better data from places where there is not much data currently.

“It doesn’t take up too much energy, only a few watts, and is a good way to fill in the bulk of the earth with good seismic stations,” Orcutt said.

According to the official website of Liquid Robotics, Wave Gliders have numerous applications beyond oceanography and tsunami warnings; national defense, transportation safety, fisheries management and offshore renewable energy are just a few of the possibilities of this new technology.

With events such as this year’s devastating tsunami in Japan showing the importance of earlier tsunami warnings, it is possible that in the future Wave Gliders could help save lives.

ERIC C. LIPSKY can be reached science@theaggie.org.

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